Standing room only as debate heats up over proposed landfill expansion

Posted: 10:45 PM EDT Sep 25, 2013   Updated: 5:50 AM EDT Sep 26, 2013

IESI landfill officials, workers and contractors made an unusual show of force at a public hearing in Lower Saucon Township over proposed zoning changes that would set the stage for the landfill to expand.

The hearing conducted Wednesday night by the Lower Saucon Township Council drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Audion Room at Saucon Valley High School.

After nearly three hours of testimony from 29 people and facing a 10 p.m. deadline, council members decided to continue the hearing at 7 p.m. Oct. 9 at the same location, so nine more people who had signed up to speak could have their chance.

Council also decided to hear other speakers as well when the hearing resumes.

The contentious debate over rezoning about 140 acres along Applebutter Road just west of the landfill has been going on for about a year and a half. Landfill officials have said they would like to expand their 224-acre facility by about 50 acres, if the rezoning goes through.

The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission and the township's Environmental Advisory Committee have come out against the rezoning while the township planning commission has endorsed it.

Opponents and proponents of the rezoning were civil Wednesday night as they restated familiar arguments.

But this time, instead of opponents dominating the proceedings with concerns about quality of life issues and warnings of potential environmental damage and health problems, the numbers of pro and con statements were almost evenly divided, with a dozen or so on each side.

In fact, five of the first seven speakers urged council not to be fearful about acting favorably on the rezoning -- including IESI consulting engineer Richard Bodner, IESI manager Sam Donato, IESI attorney Maryanne Garber and IESI workers Al Schleyer and Scott J. Viola.

Bodner pointed out that the solid waste industry is "highly regulated," while Donato and Schleyer said IESI has been sensitive to its neighbors concerns. "A 'yes' vote will keep a small business in business in your township," Donato stated.

Viola's comments were more in your face. After noting he owns three properties in the area and describing himself as "a businessman" and "someone who pays a crapload of taxes," he chided landfill opponents for not realizing "your infrastructure is going to need taxes. ... And what are we talkin' about? 'Let's close 'em down!' Are you nuts?"

Viola got the evening's biggest -- and only -- laugh, although he wasn't trying to be be funny when he said, "You know what a landfill does? It increases property values."

IESI is the township's largest taxpayer, contributing about $2 million annually to the township budget.

However, IESI officials predict the landfill will be full in less than four years if it cannot expand. If it is allowed to grow, the landfill could keep operating for at least another decade, officials say.

One township resident said council members should not be overly concerned about the loss of tex revenue if the landfill closes. "Bethlehem Steel closed and 20,000 people lost their jobs ... and they came back," he said. "If you guys lose $2 million, you guys have just got to spend less."

Township resident Heather Pekarek pleaded with council members not to approve the rezoning, saying she feared her well water would be contaminated and that she would have to live near "tons of trash rolling down the mountainside."

"I bought my house in 2007 with my life's savings," she said. "Now my dreams are turning to dust."